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Hunger never saw bad bread

Moniza Inam discusses the various aspects of food insecurity in Pakistan which affects a growing number of people today

“Hunger is exclusion — exclusion from the land, from income, jobs, wages, life and citizenship. When a person gets to the point of not having anything to eat, it is because all the rest has been denied. This is a modern form of exile. It is death in life…” — Josue de Castro

Of late, Pakistan has been going through the worst crisis since its inception. Apart from corruption, poor governance, terrorism, suicide bombing, militancy and an insurgency in Balochistan, it is facing another very acute problem afflicting a large portion of the population: food insecurity—a problem whose manifestations are grave.

We all have witnessed the long rows of beggars at traffic signals in our urban centres. Not all ask for money now; rather, they ask you to buy them a meal. The same is the case in the rural areas. Recently, a friend, travelling to Lahore by bus, narrated to me a horrifying account: ‘Wherever the bus stopped en route, there were hordes of beggars—half-clad and malnourished, with stunted growth—asking for food.’ This scenario should not surprise anyone, as according to the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) report on Pakistan’s food crisis, nearly 48.6 per cent of the population is food insecure.

This situation is a challenge for development experts as Pakistan is an agrarian country, and supposedly, ‘food self-sufficient’ for that reason. However, the prevailing conditions prove the point that issues of food security are directly linked to the food availability concerns (socio-economic access to food), besides production.

Explaining the complex problem, Najma Sadiq, director of the Green Economics Initiative under Shirkat Gah, (which focuses on ecological agriculture, especially for women; renewable development and globalisation impacts), says, “A country can be food self-sufficient, but the majority can still starve because it is jobless and devoid of any purchasing power. Simultaneously, cash crops serve the industry and are exported to enrich the big landlords, traders and investors. As a consequence, the rural and the urban poor, as well as the low-income earners, have been suffering from food insecurity for at least two to three decades.

“Although the maximum number of livelihoods in the country comes from agriculture and related activities, progress has been largely poor because of an undemocratic state that is neglectful of public priorities. The state allows untaxed land monopolies without caps, and has nurtured a predatory and exploitative economy to benefit the landed, the politically and officially privileged, the wealthy and the upper middle-class,” adds Sadiq.

However, the issue demands not just national but universal attention, as food prices have been consistently climbing since 2000. Additionally, governments all over the world are sceptical over the prevailing fallout and social unrest, which, in extreme cases, is capable of resulting in an atmosphere of rioting and upheaval.

In the recent cases of instability in the Middle East and North Africa it is the less privileged who have suffered more. The most vulnerable are the poor, the unemployed, marginalised communities and, generally, the disadvantaged groups who are food insecure. According to the World Bank’s (2011) report, nearly 44 million people in the developing countries have been pushed into acute poverty owing to the rising prices of corn, wheat and oil.

Back in Pakistan food insecurity remains a grave problem. According to news reports, malnourishment levels in some parts of the country are dangerously high, equating almost to those found in the Sub-Saharan Africa. Last year’s devastating floods aggravated an already dire problem, creating a crisis situation. However, Sadiq doesn’t agree with this fully and says, “The floods have provided a convenient and untruthful excuse to the government for its failures. Floods are natural phenomena that have become a problem because the rivers and forests along them have been wiped out, misused and mismanaged.

“When a person routinely doesn’t get enough to eat, he allows malnourishment to rear its ugly head. There have been consistent reports, spanning at least the past 50 years, on poor women and children suffering from anaemia. But it’s not prevalent in just some parts of the country: it’s everywhere, and it gets worse in the inaccessible areas. Flood or no flood, if peasants are deprived of land, water and their productive potential, food prices will continue to escalate and more will starve,” she concludes.

The country is facing many issues. Crime is rampant in our cities and towns and many are feeling increasingly insecure and helpless, which in turn gives rise to multiple psychological problems. According to the SDPI report, ‘one can try to understand the insurgency and militancy in Balochistan, FATA, KPK and the four remote districts of southern Punjab from a food security angle. Although it is difficult to develop conclusive empirical proof, the strong overlap of food insecurity and militancy provides considerable evidence of a political nexus’.

Elaborating the issue further, Dr Abid Suleri, who specialises in food security issues, says, “Poverty (of which food insecurity is one of the worst forms) and violence have a chicken-egg relation: poverty induces violence and vice versa. In Pakistan, most of the militancy hit districts, and the worst food insecure districts overlap.

“Unfortunately, many have responded to the ‘high prevalence’ of food insecurity by resorting to extraor- dinary behaviour, committing suicide, working as bonded labour, selling or killing dependents, selling body organs and engaging in anti-social activities—basically whatever can feed them or rid them of life’s woes. There are also many who succumb to the inducements of militants.”

“Many insurgents, like those in Balochistan, are not ideological hardliners, but impoverished young people ‘outraged by chronic hunger’, and by the government’s consistent inability to provide services. The violence, in turn, further increases food insecurity and this vicious cycle goes on, eroding the socio-political fabric of our society,” adds Suleri.

It is not that the government is unaware of the rising problem; it is very much aware of its disastrous consequences. As mentioned in the Pakistan Economic Survey 2010-11, ‘food inflation averaged at 18 per cent during the last four years in Pakistan. There are many structural factors, combined with short-term disruptions and natural calamities that are responsible for this inordinate rise. Bringing food inflation down remains the major policy challenge for Pakistan’. Yet, despite our efforts, we were not able to get to a senior officer for the government’s view on the issue due to the ongoing devolution process.

It is time the government reconsidered its priorities and, keeping aside its history of neglect and indifference, made concerted efforts to revitalise the farming sector to ensure food security for all citizens. What we need is nothing short of a paradigm shift that views hunger as a national security threat.

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